The VIRGIN OF ISAIAH?
"Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel." (Isaiah 7:14).
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This, the first controversy among the Hebrew prophets, is also one of the greatest, at least between Jews and Christians. The word "virgin" is found in every Christian translation and affirmed in the ancient Jewish translation, the Greek Septuagint, as well. However, medieval and modern Jewish translations, such as the Tanakh, translate the word as "young woman." Christians believe that this is the sign of the Messiah's birth, but Orthodox Jews usually see this as a prophecy of either King Hezekiah's birth or of the birth of Isaiah's son. More recently, Christian scholars have begun to argue for a double fulfillment, agreeing with most Jews that Isaiah's son is envisioned, but maintaining that it is also, more literally, a prophecy of the birth of Jesus, the Messiah.
The word translated "virgin" here is (alma) in Hebrew, as opposed to (bethula), the normal word for "virgin." Should the word be translated "virgin?" Is the "sign" that of a virgin birth or something else? Moreover, what of the other prophecies? Is this the Messiah, a great king, or merely the child of a prophet? Not only will the question of the "virgin" be addressed here, but also the prophecy of the "power of Damascus" and the name of the child, "Immanuel."
The oldest clear reference to the interpretation of this passage is the Greek Septuagint which was written in the mid-third century before Christ. It translates (alma) as (parthenos) or "virgin." That this was the interpretation accepted by the Jews of antiquity is further supported by the fact that the apostle Matthew, in writing his gospel to Jews, quotes this verse without any attempt to justify its usage. In other words, he assumed that its application to the birth of the Messiah was to be taken for granted, and not disputed. Indeed, one might assume that it would be more simple to deny the virgin birth than to deny that the passage speaks of a virgin, but for whatever reason (perhaps out of respect to Christians) the Jewish commuity at large soon began to refute the teaching that the Messiah should be born of a virgin, and argued that (alma) should be translated as "young woman," as the Aramaic Targum does.
It should not be a surprise that Christians have fastly held to the teaching that the prophecy speaks of a virgin, and only a virgin. Tertullian suggest that "a daily occurence - the pregnancy and parturition of a young female - cannot possibly seem anything of a sign." He insist that the sign is that of a virgin birth. Ignatius too sees this as a prophecy of Mary, as does Irenaeus who refutes the translation of (alma) by Theodotian the Ephesian and Aquila of Pontus (both Jewish proselytes), which renders the verse "young women."
Later Church Fathers like Saint Cyril of Jerusalem concur. Saint Jerome maintains that (alma) means "a hidden virgin, that is, not merely a virgin, but ... a virgin secluded, and guarded by her parents."
Although Christians are united on this issue, Jews soon became divided. Some began to argue that this was a prophecy of Hezekiah but others argued that the prophecy referred to Isaiah's son, mentioned in 8:3. Some even argued that it was an allegorical prophecy referring to the kingdom of Judah!
Rashi, the famed medieval Jewish scholar, holds, with most Jews, that the prophecy refers to Isaiah's son. So popular did this view become that by the Middle Ages some Christians began to decipher Isaiah 7:14 as a dual prophecy. This view was supported by Martin Luther and argues that there are actually two signs; "the first one does not apply to Ahaz, because he did not live to see it, but the second does."
Despite Luther's support for the dual prophecy theory, it did not become a popular view among Christians until relatively recently in history. Christian scholars such as John Lightfoot, Matthew Poole, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon John Gill, John Nelson Darby, and C. I. Scofield all continue to accept the prophecy as a sole reference to Christ. It is only recently that the position of Martin Luther has become dominant.
The first question is most obviously, is the woman a virgin? Since the Christian era most Jewish scholars have insisted that the word (alma) should be translated as "young woman." Even modern Christian translations have begun to translate the word that way in most other passages, but is this the correct translation?
The word (alma) appears in the Bible only seven times (Gen. 24:43, Ex. 2:8, Ps. 68:25, Prov. 30:19, Song of Solomon 1:3, 6:8, and, of course, Isaiah 7:14). Its translation has varied from translation to translation depending on the time and culture of the translation. Metthew Poole insist that "this word constantly signifies a virgin in all other places of Scripture where it is used" but Hebrew language scholar Gesenius denies this saying that it was often translated by Jews in the Greek Septuagint as (neanis) or "young girl." However, this is misleading, for the Jews translated (alma) as (parthenos) or "virgin" in two of the seven passages, including Isaiah 7:14. The other passage is Genesis 24:43 where (alma) is translated as parqenoj (parthenos) as is evident in verse sixteen where, as Matthew Poole points out, Rebekah is most definitely called a virgin or (bethula).
Of the remaining passages, it has been argued that not one of them clearly refers to a woman who is not a virgin and in at least three of the remaining five verses it is almost certain that the woman in question was a virgin. In Exodus 2:8, for example, it can be demonstrated that the girl in question was a virgin for this woman is accepted by Jewish tradition to be Miriam, Moses' own sister who would then still have been a child. Psalms 68:25 is somewhat ambiguous although it should be pointed out that the women are spoken of as part of a religious ceremony, and were usually virgins. Also in Song of Solomon 6:8 one would certainly expect that a king might obtains virgins for himself, hence the term virgin is likely here as well.
The best argument against the idea that an (alma) should be translated "young woman" is Jerome's objection that "a virgin [is] properly called Bethulah, but a young woman, or a girl, is not Almah, but Naarah!" Indeed, if the passage merely spoke of a "young woman" one would expect to see (na'arah) rather than (alma).
So what then is an (alma) and why does it differ from (bethula)? The root of the word for (alma) is (alam) which means "hidden" or "concealed." The connotation is obviously of hiding one's anatomy or sexuality. A virgin conceals herself from others. Saint Jerome defines (alma) as "a hidden virgin, that is, not merely a virgin, but ... a virgin secluded, and guarded by her parents"
Nevertheless, Rosenberg offers Proverbs 30:19 as proof that (alma) is not a virgin, but the passage is inconclusive for the "way of a man with a woman" does not say anything about whether or not she was a virgin before. In fact, the context seems to support the deflowering of a virgin rather than of an experienced woman.
One thing is clear. Even the Orthodox Jews admit that the (alma) is a young woman of marriageable age, but in no instance can the word be found to refer to a married woman, thus (alma) is usually translated as "maiden." Now, as H. A. Ironside has pointed out, if she is a maiden then "every maiden is presumably a virgin - if not, something is radically wrong."
The strongest possible support for the translation "virgin" is not only the Jewish translators of the Septugaint but the fact that the apostles, themselves Jews, referred to this prophecy in a matter of fact manner. In Matthew's gospel he nowhere seeks to prove that "virgin" is the correct rendering of the passage, though he himself wrote in Hebrew, but instead assumes that the Jews to whom he was writing already knew the prophecy (1:23)! Indeed, it is not until after Christianity became dominated by Gentile converts that many Jews began to deny the prophecy referred to a virgin.
Perhaps it is out of respect for the Christian that the Orthodox Jew now denies that the prophecy speaks of a virgin birth, for they obviously do not truly believe that Mary was a virgin. Nevertheless, it seems apparent that the Jews of antiquity did believe she was to be a virgin, as the Septuagint reads. Moreover, the virtually unanimous opinion of the ancient Jew was that this was, indeed, a prophecy of the Messiah. If the promised son is the Messiah then the woman must be a virgin. Could the Messiah be born of any other?
Of course, the question then follows, "is the son the promised Messiah?" What is the "sign" of which Isaiah spoke? For centuries the sign was held to be the virgin birth of the Messiah. However, as with the "virgin," some Orthodox Jews soon came to deny not only the virgin birth, but also whether or not the prophecy referred to the Messiah at all. So if the "sign" is not of a virgin birth of the Messiah, what is it?
How a "young woman" giving birth is said to be a sign bewilders the Christian. Surely the "sign" is related to the birth of this Immanuel? If not, what? The medieval Jewish scholar Ibn Ezra declared that "the sign was that the child was to eat butter and honey, for it is not usual that children eat these things immediately after birth," but such a "sign" would hardly be convincing since anyone familar with the prophecy could feed their son butter and honey, thus making a "self fulfilling prophecy." As Cyril declared "the sign certainly must be something astonishing." We cannot, therefore, assign the sign to an ordinary event or something which any charlatan could emulate. To quote Tertullian, "a daily occurence - the pregnancy and parturition of a young female - cannot possibly seem anything of a sign." The question then remains, "what, if not a virgin birth, does the 'sign' refer to?"
John Darby believes that "Immanuel is the sign" and John Gill confers, saying that the sign was nothing less than "the promised Messiah." Such an argument is, perhaps a valid alternative except that many no longer believe the prophecy even refers to the birth of the Messiah at all! Five views have been put forth.
The first view, that it is the Messiah who is promised, will be debated in the ensuing pages. The second view is that the prophecy refers to the birth of Hezekiah, the great king of Israel. This view, however, is not well accepted even among many Orthodox Jews. Rashi points out that Hezekiah "was born nine years before" this prophecy was made, thus nullifying the idea that his birth could be what was referred to here, for, as Cyril remarks, "he said not, 'hath conceived,' but 'the virgin shall conceive,' speaking as with foreknowledge." Ibn Ezra also rejects this view on the same grounds as do most Christian commentators such as Martin Luther and John Calvin.
A third view holds that the child is allegorical for the whole kingdom of Judah! Even John Calvin hints that the child in verse sixteen might refer to "all children in general" and others make out the virgin to represent the house of David, but this view, and its variants, has few supporters. Ibn Ezra rejects it entirely, remarking that it completely ignores the "mother and father" of 8:4 (which he believes refers to the same child).
The most dominant view aside from the first is the belief that Isaiah's son is envisioned. Rashi holds to this view, as does Ibn Ezra. They hold that Isaiah's wife is the "young woman" spoken of in verse fourteen and that the fulfillment of the prophecy is itself recorded in 8:3-4, for in those verses the Lord declares to Isaiah concerning his son, "name him Maher-shalal-hash-baz; for before the boy knows how to cry out 'My father' or 'My mother,' the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria." This is held to be parallel to verse 7:16. However, there are many problems with the view. First, as Charles Spurgeon says, "it does strike me that this Immanuel, who was to be born, could not be a mere simple man." Furthermore, "here is a government ascribed to Immanuel, which could not be His if we were to suppose that the Immanuel here spoken of was either Shear-Jashub, or Mahar-Shalelhach-Baz, or any other of the sons of Isaiah." Secondly, Franz Delitzsch points out "it is inconceivable that in a well-considered style, and one of religious earnestness, a woman who had been long married, like the prophet's own wife, could be called ha almah without any reserve." John Calvin, in his usual uncharitable manner maintains that it would be "absurd to hold out this is a sign or a miracle."
A fifth view holds that both the fourth and first views are correct. With Albert Barnes, many choose to believe that this is a dual prophecy or, as Calvin put it, "that the Prophet spoke of some child who was born at that time, by whom, as an obscure picture, Christ was foreshadowed." This view has become a dominant view in recent years among Christians who seek to dismiss the criticisms of the Orthodox Jew while maintaining the truth of the gospels. Even such conservative names as John Walvoord hold to it. Gleason Archer believes this view best explains the use of the word (alma) saying "'almah was an ideal term for the twofold aspect of the Immanuel prophecy." Nevertheless, it should be obvious that the birth of Isaiah's son could not be what the prophet had in mind for, as Albert Barnes himself admits "it is clearly implied here, that the sign should be such as JEHOVAH alone could give." Could not anyone have a child if she was not a virgin?
This returns us to the first view. Namely, that the "sign" is a the virgin birth of the Messiah. The Orthodox Jew objects to this view on several grounds. The first point, that (alma) should not be translated "virgin" has already been debated. The second argument applied against the gospel view is that the birth of the Messiah, many centuries still future, could in no way be considered a "sign" to Ahaz (7:11)! The criticism appears sound at first but ignores the fact that Ahaz had already rejected the sign God had given him and declared that he would not "test" the Lord (7:12). Thus, as Robert Govett says, "as Ahaz had refused the miracle, the miracle was no longer to be vouchsafed to him." The prophecy, says Matthew Henry was "a sign to the house of David." This is proven, as Scofield remarks, by verse thirteen which addresses the prophecy not to "the faithless Ahaz, but to the whole 'house of David.'"
John Lightfoot summarized the entire prophecy by saying that "the Lord will not quite cast off the house of David, till a virgin have born a son, and that son be God in our nature." To quote Calvin, "for on what did the deliverence of Jerusalem depend, but the manifestation of Christ?" It is evident that the "Messiah must be of the seed of Eve, that is to say, he must be human, a man. An angel cannot be Messiah." As Ironside observes, "the 'Seed of the woman' is a most significant expression and refers to the Virgin Birth of the Messiah. All others born into the world are definitely of the seed of man, but the great Deliverer was to come only through the woman."
So the best view should be the one held by the Jews and Christians of antiquity. The "sign" should be, as John Wesley believes, solely a prophecy of the Messiah of the distant future. This is further proved by his name; Immanuel.
The Son, Immanuel
Was Isaiah's son called Immanuel? Was Jesus called by this name? If not, what does the title Immanuel mean?
The Hebrew name Immanuel literally means "God with us." (im) means "with," (anu) means "us," and (El) means God. None of Isaiah's sons were called by this name, nor could they have been. Jesus on the other hand, although not formally given the name, was most literally Immanuel for, as Novatian said, "He is 'God with us.'" Augustine believes the prophecy is proof that "God should be born Man," and Lactantius declared, "by this name the prophet declared that God incarnate was about to come to man."
Those who deny that the Messiah is God incarnate cannot explain this title unless it be an ordinary name, and if it is an ordinary name, then fact remains that no man of significance has ever formally received this name. It is either a name or a title, and if a title, it can refer only to one; the Messiah.
The Power of Damascus
Those who believe in the dual fulfillment that Isaiah 7:14-16 also attempt to connect 8:3-4 to Christ, saying that Christ received the power of Damascus. Interestingly enough, even those who do not believe in a dual fulfillment have often attributed the power of Damascus to Jesus, but is this necessary? Does the prophecy of Damascus refer to Christ at all?
Tertullian believes that the Magi represented the power of Damascus. Likewise, Irenaeus says "the magi when they had seen, adorned, and offered their gifts ... departed by another way, not now returning by the way of the Assyrians, 'For before the child shall have knowledge to cry "'father'" or "'mother'" He shall receive the power of Damascus and the spoils of Samaria.'" However, one wonders what passage Tertullian and Irenaeus are referring to for 8:4 actually reads, "before the boy knows how to cry out 'My father' or 'My mother,' the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria." Jerome calls it spiritual Damascus and spirutal Assyria.
In fact, this is an illustration of the problems caused by merging two incompatible prophecies. The prophecy of Damascus clearly refers to Isaiah's son and not the prophecy of the virgin's son. Isaiah is told specifically to "name [his son] Maher-shalal-hash-baz; for before the boy knows how to cry out 'My father' or 'My mother,' the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria" (8:3-4). That prophecy was fulfilled "in 732 B.C. when Tiglath-Pilaser III destroyed Damascus." On this account the Orthodox Jew is entirely correct. The wealth of Damascus and Samaria are to be carried off by "the king of Assyria," not the child spoken of in Isaiah 7:14-16.
There once seemed to be little or no controversy over the prophecy of Isaiah, but as the debates between Christians and Judaism soon became a debate between Gentiles and Hebrews, the Jews began to seek a new interpretation. Whether out of respect for Christians or for some other reason, Orthodox Judaism soon came to be synonymous with the teaching that Isaiah's son was envisioned. However, the arguments cannot against the virgin birth cannot stand up to the facts.
The Jews of old did not doubt that the birth of the Messiah was here predicted and nor should the Christian. The testimony of Matthew should be enough to convince the Christian, but even the Orthodox Jew should not doubt that the prophecy refers to the Messiah, even if he doubts that Jesus was that Messiah.
Isaiah 8:1 - Isaiah 8:22
After the promise of chapter seven, Isaiah foretells of the fall of Damascus and Samaria by the Assyrians. Some hold that the events of chapter eight are what was actually prophesied in the previous chapter, but Isaiah's son clearly does not inherit a kingdom as the child of chapter seven is promised, nor is he ever heard of again in the Scriptures. This chapter connects to the previous chapters inasmuch as it continues the "theme" of judgment, but it is not a continuation of the Messianic prophecy made to Ahaz, for Isaiah was no longer speaking to Isaiah. Instead, he prophecies against Samaria and Damascus, but as before, redemption is again promised in the future as is described in chapter nine.
Note : Endnotes were removed for space but can be found in my forthcoming book, Controversies in the Prophets.
Copyright = David Criswell = 2005 = All rights reserved
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